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Records of the Past, 2nd Series, Vol. III

A. H. Sayce

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This entry in the Records of the Past series includes the Precepts of Ptah-Hotep, the 'oldest book in the world', the Hymn to the Nile, and the India House inscription of Nebuchadrezzer.

This book has 135 pages in the PDF version, and was originally published in 1890.

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Excerpt from 'Records of the Past, 2nd Series, Vol. III'

In presenting a new volume of the Records of the Past to the public, I feel it my duty to remind the reader of certain words which I wrote in the Preface to the first volume. I there said that "the writer who wishes to make use of a translation from an Egyptian or Assyrian text for historical or controversial purposes ought to know where it is certain, and where it is only possible, or at most probable." I therefore promised that "in the present series of volumes doubtful words and expressions should be followed by a note of interrogation, the preceding word being put into italics where necessary"; that is to say, that the reader should be forewarned whenever the translator was himself in doubt as to the correctness of his rendering.

So far as lies within the power of an editor, this promise has been fulfilled. But it must be remembered that in many cases a translator may consider that the version he proposes admits of no question, whereas another scholar may take a different view, and hold the version to be incorrect. Such cases occur even in translations from Latin and Greek authors, still more so in the translation of the Old Testament. It is impossible for all men to think alike even in matters of philology. Gradually, no doubt, with the progress of knowledge, approach is made to unanimity of opinion; but after all it is only approach. It is only young scholars who think themselves qualified to set all the world right.

In the decipherment and translation of what may be termed the monumental languages of the past—Egyptian, Assyrian, Phœnician, and the like—much depends upon the nature of the text. Historical texts are fortunately the simplest, and are naturally the first to attract the notice of the decipherer. Consequently the historical texts of Egypt or of Assyria can now be read with almost as much ease and certainty as the historical books of the Hebrew Scriptures. The case is different when we come to deal with texts of a more complicated character, and when we recollect how uncertain is the translation of much of the language in the non-historical books of the Old Testament, we need not wonder that the Egyptian or Assyrian translator should intersperse his renderings of religious and mythological texts with notes and queries, or should improve upon them from time to time as his materials increase. In one respect, however, he possesses an advantage over the Old Testament student; he generally has to deal with texts which are fairly free from the corruptions of copyists. The Assyrian translator, moreover, has at his disposal an enormous mass of literature, much exceeding that contained in the Old Testament, though it is true that but a comparatively small part of it has as yet been examined.

Like all other branches of inductive science, the science of decipherment is one of probabilities. Absolute certainty is unattainable, whether we are translating an inscription of Sennacherib or the book of Genesis. But for all practical purposes a high probability amounts to absolute certainty, and it is this high probability that the decipherment of the ancient monuments of Egypt and Assyria or Babylonia has now attained. Scholars may dispute about the exact meaning of certain words or phrases, as they do in the case of the Hebrew Bible, but it is seldom that anything of importance turns upon the dispute, at all events so far as regards the historical inscriptions. And in the present series of volumes due notice is given to the reader of the occurrence of such disputed words and phrases.

When once we have settled the philological signification of a historical text there begins the equally important work of critically examining it. We have first to ask whether it is contemporaneous with the event or events which it professes to record, and if not, whether its authorities or its interpretation of its authorities are trustworthy.

This is more especially the case as regards chronology—the skeleton and framework of history. I do not think, therefore, that it will be out of place even in a preface, to examine some of the data we possess at present for determining the chronology of Babylonia and Assyria. Translations of the documents upon which it rests have been given in the two previous volumes of this series.

Nothing can be more satisfactory than the chronology of Assyria so far as it extends. The Assyrians were a people of business, and they carried their business habits into their mode of reckoning time. Each year was distinguished by the name of a particular officer, the limmu or "eponym," after whom it was called, and as the names of the eponyms were recorded on the accession of each to office and registers of them were kept, there was no difficulty in determining the exact year in which an event occurred or anew king ascended the throne.

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